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17C Copyright Office records are not conclusive

What the Courts Ruled


Edward B. Marks Music Corp. vs Wonnell, et al

DC SDNY (8-23-1944) ¤ 63 USPQ 4

“Paper Doll” was a popular song credited to Johnny S. Black, copyrighted December 9, 1915.  His widow, Sallie Black Waldo, renewed it November 11, 1943, with defendant Wonnell as administrator.  The widow assigned the rights November 11, 1943, to Marks Music Corp.

“Defendant Mattie E. Shanks filed an extensive answer denying several of the allegations in the complaint and asserting that she helped write the song.  The prayer for relief in her counterclaim contains a request that the renewal of the copyright and certain assignments be ordered stricken from the records of the ‘Copyright Office of the United States,’ and that the court declare that Mattie E. Shanks is the sole and exclusive owner of the song… .  Motion granted.”


Epoch Producing Corporation vs Killiam Shows, Inc., Gregstan Enterprises, Inc., Paul Killiam, Movielab, Inc.;
Killiam Shows, Inc., Gregstan Enterprises, Inc., Paul Killiam, Movielab, Inc. vs Raymond Rohauer and Jay Ward Productions, Inc.

USCA 2nd Cir. (8-13-1975) ¤ 522 F.2d 737

“Epoch argues, pursuant to 17 U.S.C. § 209, that the Certificate of Copyright Renewal that it obtained in 1942 was prima facie proof of the facts stated therein and of the validity of the renewal copyright.  Further, it contends that the passage of time [twenty-seven years] without challenge to the renewal adds significant support to its validity.  Both of these contentions must be rejected.

“Title 17 U.S.C. § 209 does not create a presumption of validity with respect to a certificate of initial copyright registration… [T]he presumption was meant to attach only to original certificates… . Indeed, the Copyright Office will accept and register more than one claim to the renewal copyright in a particular work, even if the claims are in obvious conflict..  The Office will point out the conflicts to the later applicant and request confirmation of the later claim, but does not view its function as making ‘judicial determinations of substantive renewal rights’ and will register the conflicting claim of a determined applicant… . Congress surely did not intend that such great weight attach to renewal certificates issued to all claimants regardless of questions concerning validity.”

(A more thorough summary of this case is under renewal registration rights.)


National Broadcasting Company, Inc. vs Jonathan Sonneborn, dba Reel Images and dba Video Images, and Reel Images, Incorporated

USDC,D.Conn. (11-15-1985) ¤ 630 F.Supp. 524, 231 USPQ 513

Video Images, run by Jonathan Sonneborn, was found guilty for infringing NBC’s 1960 production of Peter Pan.  NBC did not register the program for copyright until March 1980, but as it was an unpublished work, registration hadn’t been required.  (EDITOR’S NOTE: The broadcast had been shown nationally, but this meant only that the work had been performed, not that it had been published.)

Among the actions taken by Sonneborn which mitigated his sentence (he was required only to turn over the $2,118.00 he had earned from the sale of the videotapes sold) was his research.  “Sonneborn consulted two copyright registration books from the Library of Congress and a work called Film Superlist in an attempt to learn if NBC’s Peter Pan was under copyright and found no listing; he also contacted the Library of Congress to learn if there had been a copyright registration filed with it.  When the [print holder] sent Sonneborn the kinescope [film copy made from the broadcast], he examined the ‘head’ and ‘rear credit’ for a copyright notice.  This examination and the inquiry to the Library of Congress failed to disclose a copyright registration.”

The Court declared that it would make no determination whether Sonneborn “was a ‘willful’ infringer” or “was ‘innocent’” in doing something eventually proved wrong.  “NBC’s only proof of willfulness was the fact that Sonneborn failed to check with it before he produced the infringing cassettes.  Sonneborn was under no duty to make such a check and so was not a willful infringer.  Sonneborn’s claim of innocence is grounded in his efforts to learn whether Peter Pan was protected by a copyright registration.  Sonneborn was not entitled to rely on the copyright search he made.  The Copyright Office has made this clear:

“‘Searches of the Copyright Office catalogs and records are useful in helping to determine the copyright status of a work, but they cannot be regarded as conclusive in all cases.  The complete absence of any information about a work in the office records does not mean that the work is unprotected.’”

(A more thorough summary of this case is under limited publication of movies.)

Other Information


The Compendium of Copyright Office Practices is an internal document used by the Copyright Office to guide Office employees in their work.  The 1984 edition contains an item that indicates how records become part of the Copyright Office system without necessarily being valid:

“108.07 The rule of doubt. The Copyright Office will register the claim even though there is a reasonable doubt about the ultimate action which might be taken under the same circumstances by an appropriate court with respect to whether (1) the material deposited for registration constitutes copyrightable subject matter or (2) the other legal and formal requirements of the statute have been met.”  (pg 100-5)




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